Ben Laurie blathering

Wasting Public Money: Birth, Marriage and Death Digitisation

In 1998 a group of us started FreeBMD, a project to transcribe and make freely available the Birth, Marriage and Death records for England and Wales. The project has been wildly successful and 12 years on we have 250 million records in our database.

In the meantime the government has twice decided to spend a vast amount of taxpayers’ money duplicating our work. The first project, DoVE, was started in 2005. Three years and £8.5 million later, the project had transcribed 130 million records and was closed down. At no point in the process was FreeBMD contacted – not even to inform us that there was a tender open to do what we clearly were highly qualified to do. Nor were the transcribed records made freely available to those who had paid for them. Oh no, that wouldn’t be the thing to do at all – they were instead given to the GRO to sell.

Fast forward a few years, Big Brother is upon us. And I don’t mean the TV program. In 2009 the Identity and Passport Service decide to try again. I’ll quote it here,

The D&I project is currently in a pause status as IPS awaits the outcome of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). It is possible that the outcome of the CSR will impact the overall scope of the project, as well as timescales and procurement activity.

since history shows that the government are not very good at preserving records[1]. Anyway, you’ll notice that it’s been suspended again, at what cost to the taxpayer I don’t know, perhaps someone out there does. Since the new government has decided to scrap identity cards, which were the driving force for this project (note: no public access to the transcription was planned) I am quietly confident that the outcome of the CSR will be to scrap the project. Again. Of course, they will call it “stalled” or “delayed” so when they next decide to waste our money on it they can revive it.

Anyway, let me go on record now and say this: FreeBMD will complete this transcription, without cost to the taxpayer, given access to the source records. There’s just one condition: we have to be able to publish the complete transcription, free of charge, on the Internet. Of course, it’ll go a bit faster if we do get some money, so I won’t say we wouldn’t accept if it were offered!

Of course, we’ve always been prepared to do this, but why would civil servants shaft their cronies by saving money in that way?

[1] All references to DoVE[2] seem to have been conveniently obliterated by a “move” of the GRO’s website, even though some of it is still hosted on the same website!

[2] Well, at least all references on this rather nice timeline I discovered while researching this post.

1 Comment

  1. Wondered if there was a reason FreeReg was not available as open data e.g. the Open Database Licence, which is? I’m sure it would be tremendously useful for the community, and would encourage all sorts of applications based on it. Happy to discuss if you want to contact me.

    Comment by Chris Taggart — 13 Sep 2010 @ 14:50

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